<XMP><BODY></xmp> Rough Riders: Horseback Units for Border Security

Rough Riders: Horseback Units for Border Security

Homeland defence is a subject that the United States has only recently woken up to.

Realistically a conventional military invasion across the US’s borders by Canada or Mexico is not very likely.

This suggests that very large, heavily mechanized formations of MBTs and Bradleys will have few applications for homeland defence. Smaller units of armour may prove more useful, particularly if positioned within easy reach of high-value potential targets.

Likely threats include:

Defence against the first includes an effective intelligence gathering system that co-ordinates closely with police, customs and immigration agencies.

Defence against the second requires the local availability of SWAT or light infantry response forces and specialist units such as bomb disposal and chemical protection units.

The third threat requires surveillance systems including ground radar and airship-mounted airborne radar systems. Response forces will include interceptors and heli-mobile ground forces.

Interceptors are not necessarily high-tech jets: something that can match speed with a Cessna such as a P51 or an armed Raytheon T6 will often be more useful.

Illegal entry by maritime routes is the responsibility of the Coast Guard, although some of the systems mentioned to prevent airborne incursion will also prove useful.

Preventing entry by land is the responsibility of the US Border Patrol, and it is not unlikely if security is to be increased that they will need to be supplemented by regular army and National Guard personnel.

This brings me to the main topic of this article.

For patrol and response in many parts of the Continental USA (CONUS), a horse-mounted infantry/border guard force makes a lot of sense.

The Horse in Modern Combat

There are many good precedents for the use of modern horse-mounted units in suitable terrain.

As the German army was rebuilt during the late 1930s, most of its cavalry units were either mechanized or motorized, although the German Leichte Divisions that took part in the invasion of Poland and France still included regiments of mounted riflemen.

Operations on the Eastern Front and other theatres were soon to prove that horsemen were still needed.

Horse-mounted patrols were far more effective than any other type and there was a very real need for units that could move faster than the infantry yet cross terrain impassable to armour.

Many German commanders unofficially formed their own mounted units.

Eventually, the German Army was to raise several mounted regiments and the SS created at least three cavalry divisions, which were mainly used for anti-partisan duties. More were being formed when the war ended.

The Germans also fielded several Cossack divisions.

On the Russian Front, the horse was often the only transport that could handle the terrain.

Russian-aligned Cossack units would often use their mobility to bypass German tanks and attack them from behind with fire from anti-tank rifles.

Soviet Doctrine for Employing Horse-Mounted Troops

Japanese infantry divisions had either a cavalry battalion or reconnaissance battalion.

The reconnaissance battalion was mechanized and motorized but included a horse-mounted company in its strength.

Such units proved very useful in China where roads were either poor or non-existent.

“Finland at War, the Winter War 1939-40” by Nenye, Munter and Wirtanen tells us that Finnish army horses could be taught to take cover when fired on (p.245). A horse returned to civilian life would lie down when she heard dynamiting at a nearby road construction.

More recently, the Rhodesian Bush War saw the use of the Grey’s Scouts in a patrol and anti-guerrilla role.

There are also reports that some units in Afghanistan are currently using horses and that American Special Forces have used Afghan ponies for mobility while coordinating attacks from modern warplanes and attack helicopters.

A modern “Light Horse” force would not only contribute to the security of certain areas of the US, it would also create a cadre of experience that would prove useful should horse-mounted missions be needed overseas. The mounted unit is a useful asset for patrols and counter-guerrilla operations.

Most armoured and armoured reconnaissance regiments in the British Army were created from cavalry regiments and still use horses for ceremonial purposes. Such units already have farriers, vets and all of the support infrastructure needed for caring for horses. Many of the officers also come from equestrian backgrounds.

It is quite possible that a unit deployed on active service might find it prudent to have a platoon or company-sized mounted patrol element in addition to its AFVs.


A modern horse-equipped unit would be effectively mounted-infantry, but some old fighting skills will need to be relearned. These include knowing when to fight mounted and when to fight or move dismounted.

At times there may not be time to dismount, so firing form the saddle will need to be practised.

Squadron strength massed charges with sabres drawn are not likely, but where expedient patrols may conduct small-unit charges against contacts. In the past such tactics have proven useful with as little as four horses.

One of the historic names for a unit that can fight both mounted and dismounted was “Light Horse”. “Rough Riders” is another good name, particularly for an American unit.


Jackets will probably need to be on the short side. BDU trousers may be sufficient for riding or breeches may be needed.

Other, less conventional, garments such as pommel slickers and long capes may be needed: the latter may double as bedding for the trooper.

Traditional cowboy boots have a pointed toe so they slip easily into stirrups and a heel so that the boot does not slip out: but mounted infantry will also need to operate on foot, so boots should also be suitable for marching.

In the past most cavalry and horsemen have favoured high boots to protect their legs. The use of leather gaiters may adapt standard footwear. Many armies during the 1940s seem to have issued just one kind of boot and given the infantry canvas gaiters or puttees and the cavalry leather gaiters.

Headgear must protect the head should the rider be thrown, and also protect against the weather.

The kevlar helmet is an option, but something more comfortable for prolonged wear may be needed. Some military units are using ice hockey helmets for situations where head protection is needed but a kevlar pot would be too encumbering or unnecessary. A hockey helmet may be the usual riding headgear for soldiers if they are not wearing their ballistic helmets.

Many mounted soldiers in the past have favoured carrying ammo in bandoleers rather than belt pouches. Ammo vests (LBV) may be another option.


The ideal mounts for a mounted-infantry unit are not the big cavalry chargers that look so good on a parade ground.

A far better choice are smaller animals that offer a smoother ride and great endurance. Icelandic horses are famous for their stamina and smooth tölt and pacing gaits but similar capabilities are found in other breeds including American Mustangs.

Lateral and Other Gaits.

When used in an anti-guerrilla role, mounted units may face a threat from mines and booby traps. This threat can partially be reduced by the mounted unit using its ability to move across country and use routes that are unlikely to be mined.

As far as I’m aware horses can’t be trained to recognize booby traps. On the other hand, dogs can be trained in this role and many dog breeds are quite capable of keeping up with the horses. Canine senses may prove useful in other ways too.


Ideal personal weapon is probably the M4 or AR15 with a 16" barrel.

Such a weapon is so balanced that it can be fired by the horseman single-handed when necessary.

Short rifles such as these could be carried in a baldric as Ralph Zumbro has described. Many mounted troops have found this was a useful way to carry a carbine, and during World War 2 Cossacks carried the PPSh 41 in this fashion.

Such a baldric can be designed so that it can be adapted to serve as a sling when dismounted.

The Grey’s Scouts apparently favoured heavy rifle grenades such as the Energa, doubtless because they gave RPG-type firepower but were more suitable for firing from horseback.

Handguns are another weapon that may prove useful to mounted troops. Ideally this would be a large capacity .45, but in practice, any weapon of approved calibre and make may end up being carried.

Rough riders would not carry swords other than for ceremonial and sporting applications (of which more later).

My personal vote would be to adopt swords based on the British 1796 Light pattern ( also used by US Dragoons) and the British 1908. The “Patton” M1913 is another option.

British Cavalry Swords

Lances might be carried in the field as a unit identifier.

Trackers often use a long stick to move undergrowth aside when looking for sign. Mounted trackers would probably use lances for this purpose.

Any long pole that is carried for this use or to mount a pennon will doubtless eventually end up with something like a surplus SKS bayonet fitted.

Around 1925, French Foreign Legion cavalry used a sabre-platoon organization of two groups, each of two sections:

One section was a scout-section with one man carrying a VB grenade discharger.

The other section served an LMG carried on a packhorse (Osprey French Foreign Legion 1914-45, p43, Men at Arms 325).

An interesting configuration, but possibly not suitable for the Rough Riders.

One of the functions of a military unit is that it can apply more combat power than a police or border guard unit.

The mounted unit therefore may have an allocation of heavy weapons.

A good way to transport these may be to use the limbers/chariots that German infantry divisions used. These were steel with pneumatic tires, seated 2 or 3 men behind one horse and had a pram-type rain hood.

German Army Horse-Drawn Transport
German Army Horse-Drawn Transport (illustration)
German Horse-Drawn Machine Gun Carrier
Russian Tachanka

Small trailers that did not carry personnel were also widely used. A modern version might use materials such as fibre glass.

Behind the limber was towed a trailer with an MG on an AA mounting and ammo, tripod and spares. A trailer mounting a .50 HMG could be used to deliver area and precision fire at long range.

A similar rig could be used to carry a Carl Gustav MAAW and ammo, a M67 90mm RCLR or a 60mm mortar.

Alternately, a hybrid formation might be adopted. Using the 1999 FM 17-98 Scout Platoon TOE<.a> as a basis:

Alpha, Bravo and Charlie sections of the platoon are horse-mounted. Each consists of two four-man marching details.

The HQ section has a pair of HMMWVs or CUCVs, and controls the platoon’s UAVs.

The supply section includes a field kitchen.

Delta section has a pair of HMMWVs or CUCVs, one armed with a HMG and the other an AGL. Delta section also carries at least one GPMG and a 60mm commando mortar for dismounted operation. Possibly a MAAW and/or a selection of LAW/M136 may be carried in Delta’s vehicles.


Police forces such as the London Metropolitan Police have considerable experience in training horses to ignore such distractions as gunfire, firecrackers, bagpipes and to step over protesters lying on the ground.

Military horses would obviously benefit from such training and it is possible that military mounted units could also be used for crowd control.

The Royal Tournament used to include a multi-service competition based on a riding course with targets for lance, pistol and sabre. This may become an interesting sport/unit tradition for Rough Rider formations and prove an effective way to improve horsemanship skills.

Sabre handling skills are transferable to mounted riot control with using long batons.

Horses may also have other advantages other than just as transport.

Ralph Zumbro: Oddball fact. A border patrolman told me that a horse is as good at tracking and sniffing for drugs as a dog

The Russians eliminated the horse holder as a manpower eater. They simply tied all the reins together and the horses were there when they got back.

The whole secret for the horses is to find animals that already have the digestive bacteria AND the blood, distribution system to handle rough forage, and not let them bet spoiled on grain. Save the high energy food for campaigns. That way the pack animals can haul what amounts to hi-test fuel. Note, the recommended load for an animal is one quarter of its own weight...Compare that with the 70lb ruck that the infantry has to haul.

The animal HAS to be exercised regularly, and one of my contacts says that the horse should be a wanderer, that is one who likes to travel anyway. i.e. they have to be kept on the move.

That is what happened to all conventional cavalries except the Russian and Australian. An animal that loafs in a garrison stable instead of being out working and travelling is gonna lose tone.

ACHTUNG, that is why garrison cavalry could never catch up with either Sitting Bull or Genghis. The nomad life kept both man and horse in tune.

As a short cut, I have talked to enough riders out here to have the belief that it might be possible to get them to enlist in a volunteer unit WITH their mounts. This would give us a ready pool of horse experienced men, already mounted. All we’d have to do is militarize them.

Ralph expands on the idea of mounted soldiers on this page


I found your horse cavalry article an interesting read. In some ways it makes a lot of sense, but there are still problems with the concept. The main question I run into is:

'How many horses will we need per trooper?'.

If horses can be 'shared' between companies on 'horse' duty and on (say) 'APC' duty it becomes more doable. I'm assuming a 3:2 trooper:horse ratio is about the highest acceptable ratio, with troopers on 'horse' duty about half the time.

PW: For a CONUS based force trucks are more likely than APCs, but an interesting suggestion. Alternately the units “resting” from the saddle may perform duties at the garrison or act as a standby heli-mobile force.

I also have some commentary on your wanting to send limbers with horse units. As I understand it the horse companies are supposed to be a more mobile infantry, with better rough terrain crossing ability. In that case giving them limbers to carry what are essentially squad support weapons seems counterproductive. They would slow the unit down too much without providing sufficient extra firepower. If I were to saddle myself with limbers, I would look at putting bulky or heavy company-level weapons on them. The Mk19, M2HB, 81mm mortar, Stinger and Javelin seem likely choices.

Note that the towable gun/mortar again rears its head here.

PW: I see the limbers mainly used to transport “company” weapons without the need for powered vehicles or needing fuel. Rough Riders would usually operate in platoon or squad-sized units and for a small unit action, a .50 Browning is a lot of artillery.

The 60mm mortar, FN-MAG and the Carl Gustav are all light enough that it should be able to carry one with a reasonable ammunition supply on one pack horse. If that seems too vulnerable the practice of issuing each trooper single round (or belt) for the squad support weapon could be revived.

Another thing that should be considered here is support and resupply. Since these units would work primarily in the CONUS, it is very unlikely they'll ever be out of range of friendly units. Arranging a field resupply by truck or helicopter every few days seems a given, even if this takes place near someone's ranch or at some town's high school (showers!). Note that resupply could well include a farrier or vet checking the animals over.

Likewise, calling for backup by law enforcement and/or regular forces once the shooting starts hand seems the logical thing to do. Aircraft, helicopters or UCAVs shouldn't take more than an hour or so to show up. And any infantry re-enforcements that show up might well be the troopers on 'APC' duty.

There's also another interesting item here. It seems that the BLM rounds up a sizable number of mustangs each year. Quite a few of these seem to end up on the meat market. Maybe this could be a ready source of animals?

Cheers and keep up the good work,

Erik Manders

On the subject of patrol aircraft Ralph adds:

Are you familiar with the Piper Defender? It was basically a P-51 mated to an extremely powerful turboprop. When I toured the Piper factory, a representative told me that it could loiter almost as long as the piston engined version and outspeed a P-80 jet that the air force sent over for comparison. Unfortunately, it couldn't lift the GAU-8, which was what the army had in mind.

Armed with its original .50s though, it would be able to literally shoot the engines off a hijacked aircraft without killing too many passengers.

Details on the Piper Defender on the Buzzard page


Recently there have been increasing reports of "moonlighting" Mexican army personnel assisting drug traffickers. This letter and response from the October edition of G2mil

Mexican Border Firefight

I just wanted to get your opinion as to why no large media outlets or the US Government has addressed the firefight three months ago between US border patrol agents, To'hono O'oldam tribal police and six Mexican Army HMMWVs who were riding shotgun for a large DRUG shipment. The BP agents got wind of a drop off in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife refuge North of Sasebe, AZ. When they surprised the traffickers, they were brought under heavy MG and MK-19 grenade fire from Mexican Army troops who were shadowing the shipment to the high ground to the East. Approx. 600rds of 7.62 were fired at the agents and tribal police and over sixty 40mm grenades were fired. Ft. Huachuca EOD was sent to the wildlife refugee to dispose of 4 unexploded 40mm rounds.

This took place 12 miles inside the US border. The BP agents involved have all been sent TDY to Dept. of Justice in Washington, DC. My son is a BP agent in the Tucson Office. The Arizona Daily Star had a three paragraph article on the incident, and that was the extent of coverage that I was able to find. The Mexican consulate hung up after I asked the assistant Consul about this episode. Any comments?

Ed: The corporate media wants to keep cheap labor flowing across the border to drive down working class wages. They also don't want citizens asking why our military is deployed to defend everyone around the globe except them. Michelle Malkin did write about a Park Service ranger gunned down by an AK-47 last August. He was hit below his bullet proof vest. I've been told the main duty of park rangers along the border nowadays is warn citizens that the park is unsafe and insist they leave. It's so dangerous that park rangers must wear body armor, but the people in DC insist that defending America's borders is not a role for the US Army.

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